Since becoming Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn has been intermittently criticised by supporters and opponents for a shortage of radical policies. But by any measure, his party’s draft manifesto provides them. It includes pledges to renationalise the railways, Royal Mail and the energy grid, build 100,000 new council homes a year, abolish tuition fees, invest £250bn in infrastructure, spend £6bn a year more on the NHS, £1.6bn a year more on social care, raise the minimum wage to £10 and restore collective bargaining.
Though Corbyn has been accused by the Daily Mail of seeking to “drag us back to the 1970s”, polling has long shown such policies to be popular. A 2015 YouGov poll, for instance, found that 58 per cent support renationalising the railways, water companies and other utilities (with 17 per cent opposed), 61 per cent support increasing the minimum wage to £10 (with 19 per cent opposed) and 52 per cent support increasing the top rate of tax to 60 per cent (with 23 per cent opposed). There is also majority support for policies such as rent controls (59 per cent), abolishing zero-hour contracts (64 per cent) and introducing universal free school meals (53 per cent).
But as Ed Miliband can testify, popular policies alone don’t win elections. Labour currently trails the Conservatives by 18 points, a gap that its manifesto will struggle to close. Voting intention is rarely determined by individual issues but by the public’s collective impression of a party and its leader. It is in this area, under Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and, now, Corbyn, that Labour has long struggled. Theresa May presently outpolls Corbyn as the public’s preferred PM by 49 per cent to 21 per cent. On the most important issue for voters (Brexit – chosen by 64 per cent), the Tories lead Labour by 39 per cent to 12 per cent. And though the public like Corbyn’s policies in isolation, they worry about the economic consequences of Labour’s programme. 40 per cent believe the Tories would best manage the economy, compared to just 17 per cent for the opposition. As the Conservatives found in the past, support for Labour policies often falls when they are explicitly identified with the party. A further problem for Corbyn is that while the public lean left on some issues, they lean right on others, such as immigration and welfare, where the Tories lead Labour.
The 2015 election was proof that leadership and economic credibility trump policy. Though Miliband’s programme appeared popular, the Tories’ fundamental advantages gave them the edge: Cameron was rated as the best prime minister and George Osborne as the best chancellor.
For Labour, the 2017 election risks proving a more gory sequel. In 1983, the party’s manifesto – dubbed the “longest suicide note in history” by the late Gerald Kaufman MP – was 39 pages. This year’s draft is a fate-tempting 39 pages. Under Michael Foot, the party won 209 seats and 27.6 per cent of the vote (its lowest share since 1918). It is a mark of Labour’s woes that most in the party would now gratefully accept that result.